Inside View: October 2010

September 30, 2010
Written by Gary Jones
In his July review of the new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong, Randy Shore of the Vancouver Sun argues that the premise of author James McWilliams that we simply have to do something drastic to feed an expanding global population is a gross error, since “countless times in human history, advances in agriculture led to population booms. The collapse of those food systems, usually due to soil depletion or climate change, led to the collapse of the population. Each and every time.”

Conserving soil for agriculture should be a “no-brainer.” And while Canadian stocks of peat are huge, we probably need to conservatively manage our peat resources, too.

It seems there is a plethora of “plug” types available for greenhouse growers these days. There are older ones like Jiffys® that have served the ornamental sector well for years, and rockwool plugs that have been used for vegetable propagation for equally as long. Others have been around for several years, such as Elleplugs/Ellepots®, and there are newer ones, such as the Q Plug from International Horticultural Technologies.

What most have in common is that they can be soilless, often with peat alternatives such as coir products. (Others are a little more intriguing to me, such as the “bio-active plugs” made with a proprietary composting process known as Ready Gro Super Starter plugs.) Some allow the grower to fill the plug with his own growing medium, providing ultimate flexibility and control of rooting conditions for different plant species.

■ But once growing, the plants in plugs need to be potted into larger containers, and the growing medium of choice for many growers in North America is inevitably peat-based.

The United Kingdom, however, has been developing and incorporating peat alternatives for some time. According to a recent Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, the proportion of peat in (U.K.) horticultural growing products fell to 42 per cent in 2009 (as reported in Grower). Professional growing media used only 30 per cent of total peat, and overall, the U.K. horticultural market is now 58 per cent peat-free.

But switching to non-peat alternatives is costly. Another DEFRA report suggests that peat replacement cost the horticultural industry £100 million (about $170 million) between 1999-2008. Furthermore, to meet government target proposals discussed in the “U.K. Best Agricultural Practice Target on Peat Use in Horticulture” of 75 per cent to 90 per cent peat replacement, the cost would be between £26m to £81 million a year ($36 million to $145 million). Clearly, it’s unlikely that the industry can stand to simply absorb this.

During a recent shopping trip while back in England, I noticed my father-in-law grab an “impulse buy” pot mum from the local (independent) supermarket. Age 84, and still a romantic! Enjoying the flowers, he gave no thought to price, details of pot design or “the dirt.” While taking it out of the sleeve for him, the label caught my attention. It read: “Environmental Information – the “supermarket name,” in partnership with its horticultural and compost suppliers, is promoting the use of alternatives for all current uses of peat, with the aim of meeting the peat reduction targets set by DEFRA.” Curiously, however, this was in (very) fine print. Clearly, this was never intended to be high-profile, point-of-sales information.

■ It was interesting to see the “Price is Right” article (pg. 34) in the July 2010 issue of Greenhouse Canada, describing how consumers will often pay more for sustainable flower pots. Admittedly, those in the U.K. have a different attitude towards the whole peat issue, but I wondered how much more consumers there might pay for plants grown in alternative growing media if they knew about it?

Supermarkets and growers in the United Kingdom are telling the public about their peat conservation practices, and this may be part of the solution to recovering the costs of a peat reduction policy.

More drastically in the U.K., however, industry is calling on the government to reduce the rate of VAT (sales tax) on alternative growing media. Having just been introduced to the new HST in British Columbia, I say there’s a thought. That could be a way to help “plug the gap.”

Gary Jones is chair of production horticulture at Kwantlen University, Langley, B.C. He serves on several industry committees and would welcome comments at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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